Few American rock bands were as iconic and influential as the Grateful Dead. While the Dead are often acknowledged for their lengthy improvisations in a live setting, many listeners aren’t aware the group had plenty of great songs as well.
I’ll be giving you a rundown of the best Grateful Dead albums. Hopefully this will provide some unique insights for longtime fans of the band, and some good starting points for newcomers as well.
Grateful Dead Albums Ranked Worst to Best
The group’s 1975 album Blues for Allah ranks as the best on this list, for its complex compositions and unique jazz-rock leanings. Their 1989 album Built to Last comes in last place for its weak and unfocused songwriting.
13. Built to Last (1989)
While 1989 was a creative high point for the Dead on the concert circuit, this magic wasn’t translated in the studio. This album feels rushed, as if to capitalize on the success of 1987’s In the Dark. For one, there are four songs by keyboardist Brent Mydland here, and they come off as blatant filler to my ears. I loved Brent as a keyboardist but not so much as a songwriter.
Favorite Song on Built to Last: “Victim or the Crime,” a Bob Weir tune, is the standout here. This song taps into a menacing atmosphere, in contrast to the lighthearted feel of the rest of the album.
12. In the Dark (1987)
While this is the album that gave us the band’s biggest commercial hit and propelled them to stadium venues some twenty years into their career, it’s not the best starting point for the Dead. This album suffers from the same curse as many 80’s albums from 60’s rockers: the 80’s style of production doesn’t really fit the group. Still, there are some gems here like Bob Weir’s “Hell in a Bucket” and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “West L.A. Fadeaway.”
Favorite Song on In the Dark: “West L.A. Fadeaway” is a good, bluesy rock tune, almost like a Grateful Dead spin on a ZZ Top tune. Jerry displays some of his guitar magic in the solo.
11. Go to Heaven (1980)
From the album cover to the seemingly haphazard songwriting, this is an awkward transition album in the Dead’s history. The first album to feature keyboardist Brent Mydland after the departure of Keith Godchaux, Go to Heaven sounds like a band unsure of which direction to take.
There are still some killer tracks here that would go on to become Dead concert staples, like the fast-paced rocking opener “Alabama Getaway” and the classic “Althea,” but you can probably do without listening to side two of the album.
Favorite Song on Go to Heaven: “Althea” seems to be the common choice, and for good reason. This is the only track on the record that captures the Americana-inspired magic of the Dead’s early 70’s period.
10. Shakedown Street (1978)
This is another awkward one in the catalogue. Shakedown Street is about half soft-rock, half funk-inspired, so the album is lacking in cohesion and clarity. Weir’s “France” sounds like a half-hearted attempt at a Steely Dan song, and the studio version of “Fire on the Mountain” is a shallow shell of the mind-expanding live versions the Dead had been playing before the album’s release. Yet we’ve also got the immortal title track and “I Need a Miracle,” so there’s a few things worth digging into here.
Favorite Song on Shakedown Street: “Shakedown Street” doesn’t sound very much like a Grateful Dead song, with its funky backbeat and borderline disco harmonizing, but it’s a great track that serves to demonstrate the band’s versatility and desire to explore new sounds.
9. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
By 1974 the Grateful Dead, particularly the hard-partying Jerry Garcia, had exhausted themselves after a decade of near-constant touring. The impending hiatus could be why two songs penned by bassist Phil Lesh ended up on this record. It worked out beautifully, as “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga” are two of the band’s best songs. Not everything here works, however. The one Bob Weir contribution and Garcia’s “Loose Lucy” are stinkers.
Favorite Song on From the Mars Hotel: “Unbroken Chain” is one of the few Phil Lesh tunes in the catalogue. This epic track blows away the competition here, as Lesh delivers surprisingly passionate vocals along with his rousing bass skills keeping the low end.
8. Wake of the Flood (1973)
After a three-year gap between studio albums, the Dead came back onto the scene with Wake of the Flood. Featuring Americana roots rock interspersed with some jazzier compositions, there are a ton of Dead classics here: “Row Jimmy,” “Stella Blue,” and “Eyes of the World.” Yet the power the Dead had when playing these songs live isn’t translated as well on record. This leads to the album feeling a little too laid-back.
Favorite Song on Wake of the Flood: “Weather Report Suite” is one of the Dead’s longest compositions and takes up most of side two. It’s a jazzy Weir-penned piece that takes the listener through a multitude of emotional peaks and valleys.
7. The Grateful Dead (1967)
This was recorded when late keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was still the band’s front man. His influence on the recording is clear, as this is a rowdy, blues rock album that almost has a garage band feel. There are a few filler tracks here, but the band is young and full of energy, and the closer “Viola Lee Blues” is a psychedelic jam that gets far heavier than most would expect from the Dead.
Favorite Song on The Grateful Dead: “Viola Lee Blues” is a treat for someone like me, as I’m a fan of long, heavy psychedelic jams. If someone you know thinks the Dead are too soft and mellow, play this for them.
6. Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Workingman’s Dead shows the Dead ditching the distorted psychedelia of the 60’s and embracing their folky, Americana and bluegrass roots. These songs show how good Garcia and Robert Hunter were at lyrics, as these are songs that have a timeless, campfire storyteller feel to them. While I generally prefer the Dead at their most “far out” musically, this is just a great collection of songs that can’t be denied.
Favorite Song on Workingman’s Dead: “Cumberland Blues” is a simple, unassuming folk ditty, but something about it just works. It’s got enough of a driving blues edge to stand out amongst all the mellow tracks.
5. American Beauty (1970)
The follow-up to Workingman’s Dead has a similar feel, leaning heavily on Americana and folk influences for its songwriting framework. Yet this album is more uplifting and upbeat, featuring well-known classics like “Truckin’” and “Sugar Magnolia.” There are also some heartfelt and moving tracks like “Friend of the Devil,” Phil Lesh’s “Box of Rain,” and “Brokedown Palace.”
Favorite Song on American Beauty: “Attics of My Life” is a slow-paced tune featuring triple vocal harmonies by Garcia, Lesh, and Weir, clearly influenced by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. This evokes a gospel-esque atmosphere, as Garcia’s simple guitar riff is reminiscent of The Byrds or The Beatles.
4. Terrapin Station (1977)
In 1977 the Dead didn’t seem to fit in the musical landscape, with punk rock and disco gaining traction. Rather than chasing trends, they stuck to their guns and released one of their best records. “Estimated Prophet” is a heavy rocker that has a funky, reggae feel to it, “Samson and Delilah” is another classic, and the only weak spot here is the band’s weak rendition of “Dancin’ in the Streets.”
Favorite Song on Terrapin Station: “Terrapin Station” is an epic track that takes up all of side two. Featuring complex time changes and orchestration, this is the Dead building on the progressive rock sounds of the time and putting their own spin on it. This is like if you asked Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd to write a Dead tune.
3. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
This is the last album of the group’s psychedelic 60’s era, and you can hear the folkier, rootsy compositions creeping in. There’s still the general playfulness of the band’s first two albums, and it mixes perfectly with the hints at what was to come on more serious-minded albums like Workingman’s Dead.
There are some lengthier experimental pieces like “What’s Become of the Baby,” blending well with classics like “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower.”
Favorite Song on Aoxomoxoa: “Cosmic Charlie” is a great steel-guitar driven folk rocker, drenched in psychedelic effects by the production value. A young Garcia demonstrates his knack for sweet vocal harmonies here.
2. Anthem of the Sun (1968)
This is a polarizing one in the Dead’s catalogue, as many aren’t fans of the sound collage psychedelia on display here. It’s probably the least song-oriented of the Dead’s studio outings, but I think it’s brilliant. This album is so weird and heavy, most people probably wouldn’t think it’s the Grateful Dead if you played it for them.
Favorite Song on Anthem of the Sun: “Alligator” is a psychedelic freakout, showcasing the Grateful Dead when they weren’t afraid to get loud and distorted. Jerry Garcia must have been listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix at the time, because you’d swear that’s who was playing.
1. Blues for Allah (1975)
As a fan of the Dead’s instrumental prowess and their knack for jazz-influenced improvisation, this is my go-to pick when I’m in the mood for a studio album. Half the album is instrumental, and all the music has a strong progressive rock and jazz fusion sound, while incorporating bits of the psychedelia and folky aspects that were the band’s trademark.
The band was clearly feeling refreshed and inspired in the studio, as the group had sworn off touring in 1975. The result is one of their best and most ambitious recordings.
Favorite Song on Blues for Allah: “Help on the Way/Slipknot/Franklin’s Tower” is really one long song broken into three tracks, and you can’t listen to one without the others as they segue together seamlessly and share several musical motifs.
There you have it, my list of the best Grateful Dead albums. These guys had so many distinct eras and various musical experiments that it’s hard not to find something to enjoy in their vast catalogue. Hopefully this will give you some pointers based on your own taste as to where to dive into the Dead’s music. Whether you’re into folk rock, funk, Americana, psychedelia, blues, progressive rock, or jazz, the Grateful Dead have you covered.
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